The Indiana rains of May came about 10 minutes too late for Toronto’s Paul Tracy on Saturday.
When he initially qualified for next weekend’s 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, at about 11:45 a.m., his speed of 224.353 miles an hour put him in 11th place on the sheets. He appeared to be in good shape to be among the 24 fastest Pole Day qualifiers who would then be locked into the field for next Sunday’s big race.
But as the day wore on, and Tracy watched fellow Canadians Alex Tagliani of Montreal and James Hinchcliffe of Oakville qualify ahead of him (Tagliani will start on the pole of the traditional field of 33; Hinchliffe will start on the inside of row five), his name started slowly slipping down the list as the track seemed to get faster and drivers not of his calibre (Jay Howard, Bertrand Baguette) turned faster times.
At about 3:30, with rain clouds passing overhead and Tracy on the bubble – 24th fastest – John Andretti went out to try to fight his way back into the top 24 (he`d been bumped out himself a half hour earlier) and went 224.981 mph for four laps.
Before Tracy could get back into his car to try to retaliate, the rain started to pour and the first part of Saturday qualifying was concluded.
It dried up in time for the fastest nine qualifiers to go out and fight each other for the pole (results later) but it was a crushing blow for Tracy, who missed this race last year and wanted to get qualifying out of the way in order to concentrate on his race setup.
Now, along with Danica Patrick and one or two other high-profile performers, he`ll have to go through Bump Day qualifying Sunday, in which the 15 or so remaining drivers will try to grab hold of one of the remaining nine starting positions.
As Scott Goodyear said in an interview I published in Saturday`s Toronto Star Wheels section, all eyes will be on Tracy to see if he still has it.
I think he does, but Indy is a strange place. As Tracy himself said: ``Ì think the most frustrating thing is that I went out with the exact same car as Davey (Hamilton, his teammate) and he ran 225s, but our car just wouldn`t go. We`re frustrated. If you don`t have the right car, then you can`t get the speed out of it. Right now, we`re just scratching our heads.`
Let`s hope they figure things out in time for Sunday.
Tagliani had no such problems. Fast all week, he turned a speed of 226.954 for the fastest time before the pole shootout in which he then put his stamp on qualifying by turning a speed of 2227.472 mph.
It`s the first time a Canadian has won the pole for the big race. Only one Canadian has ever won the 500, Jacques Villeneuve in 1995. Tagliani says he hopes the become the second.
"I'm thrilled,` he told the Star. "We worked toward this from the start. We were fast in practice all week and this was just the culmination."
One huge surprise in the pole shootout was Dario Franchitti, who appeared to run out of fuel on his second lap. There will be hell to pay in Chip Ganassi's garage tonight, you can bet.
Hinchcliffe, who qualified with a speed of 225.572 mph, missed out on being fastest rookie to American driver J.R. Hildebrand, who made it in with a speed of 225.579 – two 1,000ths of a second faster than `Hinch.``
Want to know how close that really is? Over four laps of the 2.5-mile oval, which is 10 miles, Hildebrand beat Hinchcliffe by 1.5 feet – or 4.5 inches per lap.
By the way, three of the fast six drivers who went out to fight for the pole – Buddy Rice, Dan Whelson and Townsend Bell – don`t have regular rides in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
What does that tell you?
Change of pace: Kimi Raikkonen finished 15th in that NASCAR truck race at Charlotte Friday night. He hit the wall on his second lap but was able to keep going. He finished ahead of ex-F1 drivers who are now NASCAR veterans Nelson Piquet Jr. and Max Papis. Kurt Busch won that race, by the way.
Tom Carnegie, the “voice” of the Indianapolis Speedway for several generations, died during the winter and Pole Day was dedicated to his memory.
Several recordings of his voice were played, including a piece in which he traditionally welcomed race fans to the first day of qualifying and later, when qualifying began and the first driver on the speedway, Sebastien Saavedra, flashed across the starting line on his first lap, his signature “he-e-e-e-‘s on-it.”
There were two serious accidents Saturday – one during practice and the other during qualifications, making three for the month - Simona De Silvestro having piled up on Thursday, suffering burns to both hands
Ryan Briscoe lost control of his Team Penske mount early in practice, badly damaging the car. He was not injured and was cleared to drive his backup car. He qualified the car but was bumped out of the first 24, so will have to try again Sunday.
And Ho-Pin Tung, the first Chinese driver to try to qualify at Indy, lost control of his mount going into turn one and hit the wall backwards. As was the case with Briscoe, the car was demolished but the driver was not hurt.
Leo Mehl, who ran Goodyear’s racing tire program worldwide for years, was an interested spectator and - unlike many people who are optimistic - thinks that the jury is still out on the future of Indy car racing.
“It takes money,” said Mehl, who directed Goodyear’s operations in Formula One, NASCAR and Indy car. “There’s not a lot of it around. In fact, Canada’s doing better. I buy Canadian stocks.”
Mark Webber won his first pole of the 2011 Formula One season Saturday in Spain. His Red
Bull-Renault teammate, Sebastien Vettel, will be on the front row with him for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Spain (TSN, 7:55 a.m.).
Lewis Hamilton was third fastest in his Mercedes-McLaren, Fernando Alonso was fourth for Ferrari and Jenson Button was fifth, also for McLaren.
Michael Schumacher made it into final qualifying but could do no better than tenth place.